Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What's On Your Mind?

“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.”
(from The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha)


I would be embarrassed to admit to a majority of the things that I am aware of passing through my mind. Little petty thoughts, jealousies and judgments, far too much trivia. The thoughts I like are fleeting and hard to hold and, by far, the greater portion of what goes on in my mind runs automatically, without any real awareness on my part at all. If, as the Buddha teaches, “we are what we think,” then a large percentage of the time I am a reflection of my baser nature.

I think this saying of the Buddha reflects a fundamental principle of religious understanding--that our subjective reality within us matters as much as the objective reality around us. But more than that, I think it presents a challenge to the idea, championed by Freud, that religion is an infantile wish fulfillment of a longing for protection by a strong and benevolent father. Religion, this line of thinking goes, is a way of taking refuge in a comforting illusion, never growing up, staying a kind of dependent child.

But, far from suggesting dependence, the Buddha’s words are an encouragement to independence and responsibility. “With our thoughts we make the world.” We are, in large part, responsible for the kind of world in which we find ourselves. The religious attitude is not one of resting in the comfort of an illusion. Rather, it is the difficult work of seeking truth by examining the way that we see and understand the world.

I don’t believe that “with our thoughts we make the world,” means that we are responsible for things like disease or natural disasters. I think it means that we are responsible for how we respond to the events of our lives. Do we deepen and grow, becoming more compassionate with others and ourselves? Or do we shrink and atrophy through bitterness and resentment, refusing to give up the role of victim? Personally, I know that my own victimhood is never far from my consciousness.

For me the saying, “we are what we think” is a call to vigilance. When I read this line I feel a heavy weight of responsibility. To me it is a saying that demands our attention to and participation with the world. The way that we see the world is a major factor in determining the quality of the world in which we live.

A similar thought is expressed by Jesus when he says: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matt. 13:12) At first glance, this seems a harsh thing to say. Why should the person with more get more and the person with less get less? It seems more like a parody of present-day economic disparity than deep, spiritual wisdom.

But the point is that what we bring to our encounter with life is important. The quality of our consciousness matters. It is the abundance or scarcity in our own hearts that is the essential thing. In my own experience, I remember things like the awe I’ve felt at the beauty of a simple sunset, or the amazement of feeling truly seen as I gazed silently into a loved one’s eyes. And I have known, in those moments, that I am rich beyond measure. This is the part of me in which abundance and gratitude are active. But there is another part of me in which a kind of narcissistic entitlement reigns. At these moments everything I do have counts as nothing because I am always hungry for more, usually for something like love and attention, admiration and praise.

I know in which of these two worlds I’d rather live. If I could just hold on to that thought.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What's Your Story?

“Religious, or anti-religious, questions…cannot be settled by logical demonstration, for the essence of what is at issue is whether it makes better overall sense of experience to believe that there is a divine mind and will behind it all or not to believe that. We can give motivations for our answer, one way or the other, but we cannot simply settle it by argument alone. In the end we have to commit ourselves to a chosen point of view.” ~ John Polkinghorne


It has always seemed to me that the idea of choosing what one believes is problematic. My own experience tells me that I find myself in a particular belief, rather than make a conscious decision that I will believe one thing over another. I tend to assume that this is true for others as well, and, consequently, I have never been one to have much enthusiasm for trying to convince someone else of my beliefs. Nor do I assume that my belief could possibly be universally true. Occasionally, I have been so convinced by the power stemming from my way of experiencing the world that I have felt others would, of course, benefit from seeing things as I do, too. But any proselytizing on my part has been decidedly unsatisfying. In my more sober moments I try to hold a believe-and-let-believe attitude.

Ever since I was a child, it seemed obvious to me that if God created everything that is, He must also have created all the religions as different avenues by which the divine mystery could be experienced. Different people need different stories. I still find this idea convincing. I believe that we are all born into a particular story. Our task is to recognize our story and grow within it.

The story in which we live is the way we make sense of experience, as the quote above from John Polkinghorne would have it. Or, to say it another way, based on my individual experiences, I find that one story makes better sense than others. For me, the God story works. That is, I feel more alive and engaged in the world when I consider that “there is a divine mind and will behind it.”

Polkinghorne is a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest. For him there is no conflict between the story that science tells about the world and the story religion tells. For Polkinghorne, they are both avenues toward truth. His writing makes it clear (as do the writings of many scientific or religious writers) that there is no conflict between science and religion. Any conflict that exists is between fundamentalist science and fundamentalist religion. The fundamentalists in religion sticks rigidly to the literal reading of their story, while the fundamentalists in science abandon their story to assert a metaphysical belief for which there is no proof (i.e., there is no God).

What if we were to let everyone live their own story? What if we got curious—rather than defensive—and chose to listen to each other’s stories instead of trying to shout each other down with our own beliefs. This world, this life, is so immeasurably rich and wonderful. We need all the different viewpoints to even begin to comprehend the whole in its physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, relational, spiritual, and mysterious complexity. We might find ourselves enriched by the differences and surprised by the similarities.

Where the religious story might ask, “Do I serve God or do I serve sin?,” the humanist question might be, “Do I choose to love or to hate?” For the scientist it could take this form: “Do I serve understanding or ignorance?” The artist, “The beautiful or the ugly?” There are differences, to be sure, and important ones. But couldn’t it also be that there is enough similarity for each to be open to the other?

Perhaps the idea of everyone getting along is na├»ve of me. After all, as Polkinghorne states, we have to “commit ourselves to a chosen point of view.” If we don’t necessarily choose our beliefs, as I asserted before, we do need, apparently, to choose to commit to our beliefs. Just as a marriage, for example, cannot hold together without commitment, neither will any path yield all of its available truth without commitment. It takes long, specialized training to get to the point where one might discover something new in science. It takes long, specialized training to be consistently open to the muse for an artist. It takes long, specialized training for the religious person to reach enlightenment. All paths require us to commit. And maybe it’s this need for commitment that makes us view each other suspiciously. I might have to believe my way is the only true way in order to realize that complete commitment.

Maybe, then, we might never get to the point where we all get along, but I guess that’s interesting, too. Maybe the best any of us can do is say: “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What I Don't Know

Different, indeed, is it from the known,
and also it is above the unknown.
Thus have we heard from the ancients who explained it to us.

That which is not expressed by speech,
but that by which speech is expressed:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not thought by the mind,
but that by which the mind thinks:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not seen by the eye,
but that by which the eye sees:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not heard by the ear,
but that by which the ear hears:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.

That which is not breathed by the breath,
but that by which the breath breathes:
know that to be God, not what people here adore.
~Excerpt from the Kena Upanishad



When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who used to complain that I never asked any questions. She would say that asking questions was a sign of intelligence. But for various reasons—some temperamental, some environmental—I experienced not knowing as dangerous. To me asking questions was a sign, not of intelligence, but of ignorance. The world, with all of its unknowns, was threatening and because I did not feel I could engage it or inquire about it, I became isolated from it.

Passages like the one above from the Kena Upanishad help me to remember that not knowing is an essential part of the experience of God, and, by extension, the world. The passage is a warning against literalism, certainly, but it is also an invitation into mystery. It is a call to ask questions, to inquire, to wonder, to play.

If I cannot hold an attitude of openness or wonder or inquiry, I become isolated from God. To put it another way, the moment I become attached to my ideas about God, or about anything at all, I have lost my connection to the Divine Mystery and the sacredness of living.

In Jungian analysis, the goal is to get the conscious mind (the part of us that we know) to dialogue with the unconscious mind (the part of us that we don’t know) and thereby be enriched and changed.

Not knowing is difficult. It requires humility and (at least for me) courage. It requires the willingness to examine and, perhaps, let go of some of our most cherished notions. My fear of not knowing is the fear of looking foolish or making a mistake. It is a fear that somehow if I don’t know, if I’m not in control, I might cease to exist, as if my being is made up solely of the bits of information I have been able to acquire. It’s as if I’m afraid my encounter with the Divine Mystery would be annihilating instead of transforming.

The lesson from the Kena Upanishad, though, is that the ineffable reality of God is also an essential part of our own being. And since God is "That which is not thought by the mind, but that by which the mind thinks," our being is ultimately rooted not in what we know but in our coming to know, that is, our openness to life and the world. Not knowing, therefore, is not a ceasing to exist, but a coming to be.

Perhaps, then, the willingness to make mistakes, to look foolish, to be surprised, to be changed is a truly sacred attitude. And maybe asking a question is really a form of prayer.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Each Soul Contributes

In The Soul of Christianity, Huston Smith describes what he calls the “corporate view” of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Each Christian is working out his or her salvation in conjunction with the rest of the church, not individually to save a separate soul. ‘One can be damned alone, but saved only with others’ is a familiar adage in the Russian Church. . . . Orthodoxy brings the entire universe into the economy of salvation. Not only is the destiny of each individual bound up with the entire church; the church is responsible for helping to sanctify the entire world of nature and history. The welfare of everything in creation is affected to some degree by what each individual soul contributes to or detracts from it.”

As an introvert, I am very partial to this idea that my private actions have something like global effects. I am by no means unaware of the need to care for the actual, worldly concerns of others – I work in human services, after all – but what exactly am I doing in my private moments of prayer and meditation? Am I merely working out my own individual salvation, striving for my own enlightenment? And if I arrive at my goal, what does that mean in terms of my personal relationships with others – family, friends, the world at large?

What would happen in the (very unlikely) event that I achieved some kind of spiritual perfection in this lifetime? Would I ascend into heaven while watching other less perfected souls fall into hell or get suspended in purgatory? Or would I step off into Nirvana, while the souls of my wife and kids, for example, were sucked back into the round of death and rebirth? Wouldn’t that be a kind of abandonment?

I suppose I could exhort those that I love to take on my beliefs, so that they too could be saved. And if they resisted I could try to force them for their own good. Of course, down that path lies religious persecution and the countless acts of violence that religion has shown it can all too easily perpetrate.

What is a guy who is drawn to all things contemplative to do?

The view of the Orthodox Church stated above – “The welfare of everything in creation is affected to some degree by what each individual soul contributes to or detracts from it” – provides a different way to think about this problem.

All religions give some recognition to the importance of attending to both the divine realm and the workaday world. Buddhism, for example, developed the figure of the Bodhisattva, the being who has attained enlightenment, but out of compassion for creation, refuses entry into Nirvana until all beings are freed from Samsara, the world of birth, death, and suffering. This is a wonderful and inspiring image. It suggests that Nirvana is not Nirvana unless all beings partake of it.

What I like about the perspective of the Eastern Church, though, is the suggestion that attention to the divine realm is, at the same time, caring for the world. Further, it teaches that one person’s spiritual development has a positive effect on the spiritual development of all people. In the private of my own room, I am not only working on my own behalf, but on behalf of the whole world. I am not leaving anybody behind so much as bringing them along with me. At the very least, if I think about it this way, it can help me to divest my contemplation of a measure of ego, which is surely one of it’s goals.

Maybe a raising of our own individual consciousness, however slight, raises the overall level of consciousness in the world. I think it must. And there is some scientific and psychological evidence for this. Neuroscientists have discovered what they call “mirror neurons” which have the effect making our minds resonate with that of another. A mother soothing her crying child is making use of these neurons to understand her babies cries and to alter his or her emotional state. And, thereby, alter his or her consciousness. Surely everyone has had the experience of feeling sad when with a friend who is sad, and joyful with a loved one who is joyful. Our emotions are changed just by being with each other. This is part of the premise on which psychotherapy, at least from a depth perspective, is founded. Jung often warned of this effect from the negative point of view, speaking of psychic epidemics and “mass psychology.” It seems to follow that someone with a higher level of consciousness might just have a kind of magnetic effect on the ordinary consciousness of the rest of us.

I have met many people around whom I feel more centered, to whom I am drawn to hear and to learn from. These are the people I have experienced as being more enlightened, in some way, from whom I imagine I might gain some benefit just from being in their presence. Joseph Campbell explains that the Buddha knows “that his value derives from his power to radiate consciousness—as the value of a light-bulb derives from its power to radiate light” [Myths to Live By]. I want always to be around those lights that give off a warm, enlivening, and steady glow. And, if I am granted by the Spirit of the Universe some ability to do so, I want to contribute what I can to improve the quality of light in the human community.

So, I guess I’ll just go in my room, close my door, lift up my heart in prayer, and send a little love into the world.